How To Describe Rhythm In Music (Words, Elements, And Breakdown)

how to describe rhythm

I’ve worked with many teacher interns over the years, and they often ask great questions you wouldn’t usually think about. 

One I had recently asked me how to describe rhythm in music to my elementary students. It got me thinking about how I need to narrow this down clearly for myself and my students. 

Rhythm is the length of a sound as it exists in relation to the beat of a song or piece. Rhythms rarely exist on their own unless performed by non-pitched percussion, but it makes up an essential element of melody. Rhythms are one of the most engaging parts of a melody and accompaniment. 

Let’s dig into the weeds here for some clarity on this issue. 

What Is A Simple Definition Of Rhythm?

Here’s is the simplest definition of rhythm, and the one I use with my elementary-aged students: 

Rhythms are the long and short sounds. It’s how the words go (if there are words). 

This one gets pretty much all the way there for kids, and it hits the critical elements of rhythm. 

Next, here’s a definition of rhythm in music I use with my older elementary and middle school students:

Rhythms are long and short sounds as they occur over the time of a piece and how they happen in relation to the steady beat. It tells you how long or short to sing or play each note in a melody. 

Now we’re getting more and more of the essential elements into the definition. 

Finally, there’s the purest, science-definition you may want to use with your oldest students or as a discussion launching point for any students: 

Rhythm is when and how sounds are placed in time. 

Sounds deep, right? But if you dig into it, it is the purest definition of rhythm. 

Common Elements Of Rhythm

All of these definitions, and many more, will all have some of these essential parts to it: 

  • Length – The primary entry point for rhythm is in regards to length. A half note is this long. The eighth notes are this long. Of course, this is limited by meter and beat. 
  • Beat – Most of the time, rhythm exists functionally exists with a beat. We define values by whether they match the beat, divide the beat, or stretch over the beat (or both!). 
  • Time – We don’t need a beat to have rhythm, but we do need the dimension of time. This gets more scientific and less functional, but it’s still good to be aware of. 
  • Melody – Melody is not an element of rhythm, but the rhythm is an element of melody. They are tied together. After all, the melody is essentially “Rhythm + Pitch.”

You may also want to check out our guide for how to describe melody

How Do You Describe Rhythm In A Song?

In terms of describing this musical element in a song, it’s hard for most people to isolate rhythm outside of the broader scale of melody and style. 

This is perfectly fine! 

The elements of music are just that, parts of the overall song or piece! 

The exception is when you’re listening to purely non-pitched music, but you’ll still pick on things like articulation or style or texture/timbre even then. 

Since rhythm is the length and placement of the sounds, it’s a bit tough to describe it. So don’t!

Ask about it in connection to other elements it enhances. Here are questions I ask to help realize the importance and purpose of rhythm in a greater context: 

  • How does the rhythm match the text of the song?
  • How does the rhythm affect how the melody sounds to you?
  • What is the style of the song, and how does the rhythm fit into this?
  • Do you notice any repeating patterns in the rhythm?
  • Where does the rhythm stand out to you? Where does it fade away?
  • What is the rhythm section doing, and how does it help support the melody?

Not every question applies, but you get the idea at this point. 

If there are some words you need clarification on above, check out the section at the end of this article. 

50 Words To Describe Rhythm

Here’s a massive bank of descriptive words you may want to use to help your students describe the rhythm of a song.

LongShortDrySmoothEasy
HardHarshJumpyRepetitiveCatchy
FastSlowStressedAccentedExcited
ConnectedSeparatedRushedPoppingRigid
FlexibleMarchingRunningSneakyTip-toeing
HappySadAngryJoyfulLazy
EnergizedFrustratedSteadyHypnoticCalm
PanickedCreepyGentleComplexEndless
CrazedDouble/DupleTripleDancingProud
BouncyResoluteGiantSmallStretched

Words Related To Rhythm You Need To Know

Beat – Beat is the invisible but felt pulse of the music. It holds the music and the rhythm together. 

Meter – Meter has two main parts: 

  • It’s the pattern of stressed and unstressed beats in a song or piece. 
  • Meter tells you what written rhythmic value gets the beat and how to divide the measures. 

Common meters include: 

  • 4/4 meter
  • 3/4 meter
  • 2/4 meter
  • 2/2 meter
  • 6/8 meter
  • 9/8 meter

Measure or Bar – The song is divided into these blocks according to the meter. It helps to read and visually organize the piece. 

Accent – When certain notes are stressed either in relation to the meter, articulation, or syncopation. 

Syncopation – A specific type of rhythm when you have a short-long-short pattern is syncopation. The longer value is accented. 

The most common occurrence of this is when you have an eighth note-quarter note-eighth note pattern. 

Division – When you split the beat into two or three equal pieces, it’s called a division. 

In 4/4 time, the divisions of the beat are two eighth notes. In 6/8 time, they are three eighth notes.

In 2/2 time, where the beat value is a half note, the divisions are two quarter notes. 

Subdivision – Subdivision is when you split the division of the beat into equal parts (usually two but not always). 

In 4/4 time, the subdivisions are four sixteenth notes. In 6/8 time, the subdivisions are six sixteenth notes. 

In 2/2 time, the divisions are four eighth notes. 

Ostinato – This is a special technique that highlights the rhythm itself. It’s the repeated pattern of long and short sounds for an extended period. 

Tempo – This is the speed of the beat, which in turn, affects the rhythm. 

Style or Articulation – Style/articulation affects how you play the melody or rhythm with other elements such as dynamics (volume), accent, and more. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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